The cancellation of DC Comics adaptation Batgirl set the online film press alight, but what’s the story behind this now-shelved $90m movie?
Directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, the film was greenlit as an original project for Warner Bros’ streaming platform HBO Max, but as recently as April 2023, there was talk of the film being upgraded to a theatrical release.
Unlike Marvel, for whom El Arbi and Fallah recently worked on the acclaimed Ms. Marvel TV show, DC Films seems to have some trouble getting its ducks in a row. But unlike the array of announced but unrealised DC projects we’ve heard about in the last decade or so, this one was filmed and well into post-production when it was cancelled — it’s unprecedented territory.
Let’s take a look at what we know about the project and why it’s not coming out of Warner’s Batcave any time soon…
Even since the producers of the 1960s Batman TV series requested that DC Comics create a new female counterpart to Batman, Barbara Gordon has been one of the most popular members of the Bat-family. However, her screen appearances have been few and far between, starting with her debut in Batman Season 3 in 1968, played by Yvonne Craig.
In the movies, the first and last live-action sighting of the character reinvented her as Alfred’s niece Barbara Wilson, played by Alicia Silverstone in 1997’s Batman & Robin. The Gordon version’s only screen outing to date was in 2017’s The LEGO Batman Movie, in which she’s voiced by Rosario Dawson.
A little while after that movie came the first hint of a live-action Batgirl spin-off DC’s Extended Universe when Warner Bros announced that Joss Whedon was in talks to write, direct, and produce it in March 2017.
This was a couple of months before the studio announced that Whedon would also take over reshoots and post-production of the theatrical cut of Justice League when Zack Snyder exited the project due to a family tragedy.
In the wake of the fan backlash against that cut, Whedon eventually left Batgirl in February 2018, telling The Hollywood Reporter: “Batgirl is such an exciting project, and Warners/DC such collaborative and supportive partners, that it took me months to realise I really didn’t have a story.”
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By April that year, Warner Bros. had tapped Birds Of Prey screenwriter Christina Hodson to write a new take on Batgirl, which was ultimately greenlit with a budget of $75m. In May 2021, Bad Boys For Life directors El Arbi and Fallah boarded the project, and In The Heights star Leslie Grace was cast as Barbara Gordon.
Interestingly, the supporting cast included a mix of newcomers to the DCEU, including Brendan Fraser, (as the villainous Firefly) Rebecca Front, and Jacob Scipio, and returning stars from assorted continuities, most notably J.K. Simmons, who last played Barbara’s father Commissioner Gordon in Justice League, and Michael Keaton, who reprises his gig from the Tim Burton Batman movies in both this and The Flash.
From November 2021 to March 2022, Batgirl filmed in Glasgow, which also stands in for Gotham City in The Batman and The Flash.
All told, with Covid-19 overages, the film cost $90million and was in post-production when the news broke that it had been cancelled.
What has the cast of Batgirl said?
Leslie Grace thanked fans for their "love and belief" after the movie was scrapped just months before its planned release.
The In The Heights star addressed the news on Instagram, saying she was "#Batgirl for life".
"Querida familia!" she captioned the post, which included photos and video clips of her in character and making the movie in Glasgow.
"On the heels of the recent news about our movie 'Batgirl' I am proud of the love, hard work and intention all of our incredible cast and tireless crew put into this film over 7 months in Scotland.
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"I feel blessed to have worked among absolute greats and forged relationships for a lifetime in the process!
"To every Batgirl fan - THANK YOU for the love and belief, allowing me to take on the cape and become, as Babs said best, 'my own damn hero!'"
The film's Belgian directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah — who were in Morocco celebrating El Arbi's wedding when they heard the news — also spoke out, admitting they were 'shocked'.
They posted a statement on Instagram saying that they wished fans could have had the “opportunity to see and embrace the final film themselves”.
"We are saddened and shocked by the news," they said. "We still can’t believe it.
“As directors, it is critical that our work be shown to audiences, and while the film was far from finished, we wish that fans all over the world would have had the opportunity to see and embrace the final film themselves. Maybe one day they will insha’Allah."
After a few months of silence, the directing duo reopened the Batgirl wound once more during an interview with Insider, doubling down on their pain following the movie’s cancellation and calling the situation the “biggest disappointment” of their careers so far.
"It’s the biggest disappointment of our careers,” admitted El Arbi.
"As a fanboy, just to be in the presence of Keaton as Batman, that’s just a privilege and an honour. But it’s a bittersweet feeling."
Fallah echoed the sentiment, saying: "I felt like a kid on set working with Keaton. I totally forgot that I was directing."
Elsewhere, the pair appeared most let down by the fact that audiences were robbed of the opportunity to judge the movie for themselves. "We didn’t get the chance to show Batgirl to the world and let the audience judge for themselves,” added El Arbi. "Because the audience really is our ultimate boss and should be the deciders of if something is good or bad, or if something should be seen or not."
El Arbi also confirmed that the situation didn’t stop them from watching The Flash but it did make the experience a little bittersweet "We watched it, and we were sad,” he told the outlet.
"We love director Andy Muschietti and his sister Barbara, who produced the movie. But when we watched it, we felt we could have been part of the whole thing.
“Our movie was very different than The Flash… That has a big fantasy component, ours was more grounded. More like Tim Burton’s Gotham City.”
Despite these mixed feelings, the directors haven’t ruled out working with Warner Bros. again in the future: “There’s still a feeling of unfinished business,” said Fallah.
All change at Warner Bros.
When Batgirl was greenlit, executives Jason Kilar and Ann Sarnoff were in charge at Warner Media. Their singular focus on growing the studio’s streaming platform included a contentious day-and-date release strategy for its 2021 slate, which led long-time collaborator Christopher Nolan to jump ship to Universal.
Since then, Warner Media has undergone a merger with Discovery Inc, and as of April this year, incoming CEO David Zaslav has been changing the newly formed Warner Bros Discovery’s approach to DC properties.
But where Kilar greenlit two lower-budget streaming originals, Batgirl and Blue Beetle (the latter of which was ultimately released theatrically), Zaslav has reportedly reaffirmed the studio’s commitment to first-run theatrical features with tentpole budgets, including the DC Films brand.
“(DC’s plan is) very similar to the structure Alan Horn, Bob Iger and Kevin Feige put together very effectively at Disney,” Zaslav said in a recent earnings report.
“We think we can build a much stronger, sustainable growth business out of DC.
“As part of that, we are going to focus on quality. We are not going to release any film before it’s ready… DC is something we can make better.”
And running through this odd situation there’s The Flash, a film whose summer 2023 release looked to be overshadowed by the erratic behaviour of its lead actor, Ezra Miller. In the end, the movie was eventually released into cinemas in early 2023 but underperformed despite glowing early reviews. However, Batgirl isn’t on that same tentpole level where Warner Bros. wants to spend more money on it.
Around the same time as Batgirl hit pause, Warners also shelved Scoob!: Holiday Haunt, a $40m sequel to the 2020 Scooby Doo animated reboot, and conspicuously removed several other HBO Max original films from the streamer, leading some to speculate that Batgirl is being positioned as part of a large-scale tax write-down from the previous regime, rather than mere cost-cutting.
Other rumours have suggested the film itself is poor, speculating that low test-screening scores forced the studio to cancel the film. Some have seized on this as part of the still ongoing backlash over Warner’s handling of the DC projects since parting ways with Snyder, which ignores the more widespread reports about the simpler financial motivation.
Zaslav says they're now working on a '10-year plan' for DC movies for the future.
“You look at Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman — these are brands that are known everywhere in the world,” he said.
“We have done a reset. We’ve restructured the business where we are going to focus, where there is going to be a team with a 10-year plan focusing just on DC.
“We believe we can build a much more sustainable business.”
Could Batgirl ever be released?
Films go awry all the time but not to the point where a studio would write off an investment of this size, even if the product wasn’t that good. Whichever way you slice it, this fiasco will do Warner Bros. no favours whatsoever in its already fraught relationship with creative collaborators, and Batgirl is a bad omen for other streaming originals.
With recent hit The Batman setting up yet another, more solitary Dark Knight, and the shared universe slate seemingly in disarray once again, fans of Barbara Gordon might be waiting a long time to see the character return in a live-action film, but there’ll also be further intrigue around this almost-finished and yet unreleased take for many years to come.
It's very, very rare for a film of this size, scale and budget to never see the light of day. Add to that the huge fanbase of DC fans who have supported the film from day one, and Batgirl becomes an irresistible 'white whale' of a movie.
You could even argue that Batgirl's cancellation has generated more publicity for the film than an organic PR campaign could ever have managed. Zack Snyder's Justice League is another example of an 'unfinished' movie that sat on a shelf until fan demand (however genuine or not it may have been) forced Warner Bros.'s hand into finally releasing it — ironically — on HBO Max, the streaming platform that just canned Batgirl.
As the clamour from fans and creatives, who poured years of their lives into the project, grows, the studio may find that Batgirl has to take flight one day.
Watch: Leslie Grace is 'proud' of her Batgirl movie